The 9 Practices of Bhakti
A Sacred Body and Its Limbs
Its customary to use the word limb to refer to the practices of a yoga system and the word body to refer to the yoga system itself. It’s a charming way to think of the yogas. Each yoga is an individual and has its own body and limbs. Each yoga is a unique whole and has a different character, interest, principles, goal, history, and practices.
There are, for instance, eight limbs of raja (ashtanga) yoga, which are the asanas (postures), pranayama (breath control), the niyamas (dos), and yamas (donts), etc. These are some of the activities that comprise the body of ashtanga yoga.
The practices of each yoga are specific to that yoga and are a requisite part of achieving the goal outlined by that yoga. Practices from one yoga are not interchangeable with another. We can’t affix a limb from one body to another body and expect the body to function as it is meant. The body forms a whole and has been designed with a specific aim in mind.
Anyone Can Perform the Nine Practices of Bhakti
The five-year-old child-saint Prahlada [prah-lada] enumerates the nine limbs of the body of Bhakti in the Bhagavata Purana. Learning about the nine practices of Bhakti from a child indicates that the practice of Bhakti yoga is so easy that even a child can perform it.
This aspect of Bhakti is noteworthy because the other yoga paths are quite difficult to perform and demand certain qualifications of the practitioner. Then for the practitioner to receive the results of those yoga system depends on the purity and expertise of the yogi. For these reasons, the goals of the other yogas are rarely achieved.
But an individual’s qualification is not a consideration in Bhakti, because it is a path of grace and embraces anyone and everyone. Love, or Bhakti, is a culture of the heart, not an imposition of the mind or austerities forced on the body.
In The Ultimate Goal of Bhakti Yoga we heard that we can find the full expression of divinity when we find the Absolute who is capable of unlimited reciprocating all types of love. We examined traditions around the world and arrived at Krishna, the playful youth, who is the supreme lover who is controlled by love.
Prahlada says that the nine practices of Bhakti yoga are tailored to awaken divine love for Supreme Person. They are
Hearing, chanting, and remembering the Supreme Person. Offering loving service, respectfully worshiping, and offering prayers to him. Serving him and his desires in the world, making friends with him, and completely surrendering one’s very self to him.
These are activities that naturally awaken love. When we fall in love we like to hear about, speak about and remember our significant other. We want to offer service and gifts and express our appreciation for them. We become intimate friends with our partner sharing secrets, views about things, and experiences. Our love becomes so unified we move from “you and me” to “us” – a oneness in love.
Not only are these practices simple, straightforward, and common sense they offer another important function that leads to spiritual progress. To understand let’s take one step back before moving forward.
Become Spiritual by Spiritualizing the Mind-Body
We, self-consciousness, are spiritual beings. We possess a mind-body. The mind and body are material. They are made of inert matter. If we spiritualize the mind-body we can transcend matter and be situated on our natural spiritual platform.
We spiritualize something by using it for the pleasure of the Supreme Spirit. We use what we have to please our Source, who is the root of our existence who has supplied everything we possess.
What faculties do we possess that when used to please our Beloved could create a bond of love?
The Natural Development of the Heart
The nine practices of Bhakti fully engage the mind-body and spiritualize them. We have ears to hear. We didn’t craft our ears. They were given to us as a gift. We can use that gift in the service to the one who gave them. Instead of hearing about gratifying the senses, the latest quizmo we could acquire, the faults of our neighbors, associates, or opposing political party – or any number of things – we can spiritualize the sense of hearing by hearing about the Supreme Person.
The more we hear about the Supreme, the more our hearts become purified and attuned with the Absolute. We come to find out that the Supreme is an extraordinary person who is supremely loveable. He is beauty and truth personified. Although a genius and a master of all languages he is humble. He is peaceful, quick-witted, skillful in all activities, and a master of all the arts. He is full of all good qualities, and it is his nature to be controlled by love. He enchants the minds and hearts of those who know him. He is an enchanting flute player. He is an ocean of sublime pastimes which inundate the hearts of everyone in the spiritual world. Hearing details about his personality, qualities, and activities is enthralling and can capture our attention.
When we become charmed, we want to chant and sing his names and speak about his qualities, activities, and forms. By hearing and chanting/speaking, our mind becomes absorbed, and we begin to spontaneously remember him. As remembrance develops so does affection.
When affection arises, we naturally want to offer loving service. We can serve the form of the Lord in the temple or the home (known as a murti or Deity, which can be as simple as a picture) and respectfully worship those forms by offering water, incense, food, candles.
How would you welcome a friend to your home? You’d probably at least offer them a glass of pure water and a place to sit comfortably. We explored many ways of offering service in the section “Love is cultured by focusing the mind on the object of our love and then offering acts of affection.”
As the heart softens it’s natural that prayer spontaneously flow. You can compose your own prayers or recite the prayers of Bhakti saints and mystics. Japa and kirtan are also considered prayer. We develop an inclination to engage in a daily conversation with the Supreme. As our conversation matures and becomes constant, we begin perceiving authentic communication from the Supreme guiding us toward him. In a natural and profound way we develop a deep friendship with the Supreme Soul.
As love thickens we want to be constantly be with our Beloved and so we find ways to serve his desires in the world because we feel close to him when we act on his behalf. Gradually, love reaches a fever pitch and we run to the Beloved in full self-surrender begging to be accepted and embraced.
Just One Practice of Bhakti is Sufficient
I wrote about a progression in the practices of Bhakti to help give you a feel for the nature of cultivating love. But the fact is that you can perform just one of these practices to achieve the goal of Bhakti. For instance, you could simply do kirtan or japa and achieve the highest states of divine love. Or you can engage in all these practices.
Each of the limbs of the body of Bhakti are powerful. Because they bring you in unmediated touch with the omnipotent Supreme Person, they are unsurpassed means of cleansing the heart and awakening divine love.
By sincerely performing these activities, one engages in direct, favorable service to Krishna, which pleases him and garners his attention.
Sometimes it’s stated that the first two processes of hearing and chanting are the most essential. By hearing and chanting remembrance develops. When remembrance becomes constant, we reach the state of uninterrupted samadhi, which is an end state of perfection. In this way, all the other practices rest on and are nourished by hearing and chanting about our Divine Friend.
When we chant we hear. Therefore, of the two primary practices, chanting is the best. And the essence of the essence is chanting the sacred names of Krishna.
My spiritual teacher, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami often said, “Just chant” to indicate that absolutely all spiritual results are to be found in the holy names.
Chanting the maha-mantra – Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare – engages both hearing and chanting, and its soulful repetition is known as the most powerful of Bhakti’s practices.
All the Bhakti texts and saints describe the mantra meditation of the holy names as the most potent means of achieving Bhakti, because Krishna, being absolute, is identical to his names. The name Krishna is a direct name of the Supreme. When we chant the holy names, we are in direct contact with Krishna, the supreme purifier and lover.
The 3 Stages of Bhakti
A practice of pure Bhakti is divided into beginning, intermediate, and advanced stages. It is always Bhakti, but as it’s cultivated, it matures, sweetens, and thickens in purity and intensity of love.
For instance, a green mango is a mango that will, in time, become ripe, juicy, and tasty. It is not one type of fruit in its green stage that will ripen into a different fruit.
A Bhakti practitioner (Bhakta) just stepping onto the path is like an unripe mango. Through the natural ripening process of spiritual culture, Bhakti fully matures. Bhakti progresses in response to the practitioner’s approach through the three stages of
- dutiful practice with a feeling of obligation that becomes
- spontaneous action and ecstasy, which then
- fully blossoms into the zenith of divine love.
The 9 Progressive Stages to Pure Bhakti
The stages on the Bhakti path are not to be confused with the nine practices of Bhakti we just discussed. The progressive stages of Bhakti speak about the initial bud of interest in Bhakti to attaining the ultimate goal of divine love.
The practices of Bhakti cultivate the heart through stages of development. These are the stages of the development of divine love.
To develop divine love requires that we engage in a practice. It doesn’t occur spontaneously or magically. We are conditioned since beginningless time and to completely change from a false self who is prone to take and become situated in the true self who is a giver and a lover requires deep change.
To take up a practice we have to see value in the practice and the ideal and then trust the methodology presented to cultivate the love. The culture of love is a personal, delicate matter and it can be harmed if others step on the early sprout growing in the heart. Therefore we need to keep company with like-minded seekers.
Since we’re going against the current of incorrect perceptions and ancient patterns from lifetimes and because the spiritual culture is a process, we need guidance. Under expert guidance we can begin the work of clearing the heart of dirty things and making it a suitable place for our Beloved to come.
But we find we have weaknesses of the heart, and the mind is not always a friend therefore we encounter some obstacles in our journey.
As we continue with the practices of Bhakti, navigating the obstacles as best we can, our purified heart begins to melt with spiritual emotion. At this point we have direct experience of the self and higher spiritual states. Now a ray of genuine love reaches the heart. Gradually the sun of divine love rises fully.
The sixteenth-century Bhakti saint Srila Rupa Goswami outlines the nine stages of Bhakti as follows:
Trust. Adau Sraddha.
In the beginning there must be faith, or trust in the process. With preliminary trust we can take up an activity, without it we cannot. We develop trust first by hearing then have an experience which confirms and validates what we heard.
Association. Sadhu Sanga
As one’s interest increases one desires to associate with and keep company with pure souls. Among those devoted to Bhakti one person will stand out as a guide who speaks to your heart’s language.
Performance of practices of Bhakti. Bhajana-kriya.
Becoming more serious, one accepts initiation from a spiritual master and executes the practices of Bhakti under his or her instructions.
Removal of false values. Anartha-nivritti.
By practicing Bhakti one is gradually freed from all unwanted habits, the ignorance of misidentifying the self with the mind-body and placing value on material objects and attainments.
Then the practitioner becomes firmly fixed in devotional service, or continuous devotion without confusion.
One Develops a Taste. Ruci.
In the beginning one dutifully performs the practices, but in this stage one relishes hearing and chanting and develops a taste for these spiritual practices.
One Develops Attachment. Asakti.
As the taste for the Bhakti practices thickens, one becomes attached with single-heartedness to the object of love, Sri Krishna.
Love Awakens. Bhava.
This love becomes spontaneous and intense, and one wants nothing but the opportunity to serve the Beloved.
Love matures into divine love. Prema
When this love reaches its zenith of purity and brilliance, it becomes divine love of God.
The Ultimate Stage of Bhakti
By the continual and constant absorption in activities of Bhakti the material impressions of the mind are successfully removed and replaced with spiritual impressions.
The material properties of the subtle body are expelled and in due course only spiritual properties remain.
This is a feature unique to Bhakti yoga, not found in the other yogas. Bhakti is spiritual energy, the other yogas are influenced by the material modes of nature and are incapable of changing us at the root.
An example is given about the way Bhakti functions. Say you have a glass and it’s filled with dark ink. Now you take white milk and pour it into the glass and keep pouring. At first the milk mixes with the ink and then spills out over the lip of the glass. Then you keep pouring, keep adding Bhakti impressions through practical acts of devotion, and the milk will gradually completely displace the ink and only milk will remain. The ink will be coming gone if you pour long enough. In the same way, the activities of Bhakti gradually supplant all material impressions, tendencies, and desires with spiritual ones.
By this change we become inclined to use the body for a purely spiritual purpose. Thus the practice of Bhakti successfully transforms the material gross and subtle bodies to a spiritual body.
The final stage of the development of divine love is the highest goal of Bhakti and the ultimate attainment for the soul. Upon attaining divine love, the spiritual body befitting association with the Supreme Person is awarded.
The transcendental body is suitable for service in the spiritual world because the material coverings have been completely removed. The liberated soul performs their actions through the senses of the soul. Sickness, injury, suffering due to want, anxiety, fear and all bad qualities do not exist in the spiritual body.
To underscore how divine love is cultured through a practice of Bhakti, the Bhagavata Purana (7.7.51-52) says that it cannot be attained by great saints, demigods, high class priests, or becoming perfectly virtuous. It is not attained by immense charity, austerity, sacrifice, or vows. The Lord is only pleased by one who has unflinching love for him. Without sincere Bhakti everything is simple a show.
The 6 Core Principles of Bhakti
There are six principles favorable to the execution of Bhakti. We will cultivate these internal attitudes so that our practice remains vibrant and alive. We need to keep these principles active in our lives so that Bhakti has the chance to blossom. These six principles undoubtedly assure the complete success of Bhakti.
- act with enthusiasm (utsaha)
- endeavor with confidence (nischaya)
- cultivate patience (dhairya)
- act according to the do and donts of the practices of Bhakti (tat-tat-karma-pravartana)
- abandon the association of those opposed to Bhakti (sanga-tyaga)
- follow in the footsteps of the previous teachers (satah vritteh)